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The Nation | COLUMN ONE

He helps give labor the edge

In Las Vegas, the head of the Culinary Union gets results with his blue-collar style. He's a must-see for Democratic presidential hopefuls.

July 12, 2007|Mark Z. Barabak | Times Staff Writer

Las Vegas — D. Taylor is anxious, pacing irritably as the rabble-rousing continues.

About 150 workers have gathered at the Culinary Union headquarters here to rally and make signs for a Friday night caravan. Their plan is to clog traffic outside the big casinos to protest lagging contract talks. Many are just off the day shift, small children in tow.

Taylor, head of the union local, fidgets as Culinary organizers fire up the crowd. "When you bring kids you've got to get started," he mutters to no one in particular. Then he claps his hands and begins hollering: "Let's go. Let's GO. LET'S GO!!!" The rhetoric ends. The sign-making begins.

Nevada has assumed new prominence in the presidential race because, for the first time, its caucuses will be held in January, right after Iowa starts the nominating process. That, in turn, has created a new set of political power brokers; few in Nevada are more important than the leader of Culinary Local 226, which represents a majority of those who make the beds, fry the eggs, serve the steaks and bus the dishes in America's adult playground.

Their support, and the union's organizing muscle, could be a huge boost for some favored White House contender.

At more than 60,000 members and growing, the Culinary Workers Union is a rare labor success story, defying decades of decline that have thinned union ranks nationwide and diminished labor's clout. To Taylor, Las Vegas represents the once-and-future America, a place where a blue-collar employee, a housekeeper, say, can work hard and obtain the middle-class dream: a home, a car, college for the kids. "What we represent is what a unionized service economy can be," said Taylor, who goes by just his first initial. "Our folks aren't rich, but they're doing OK."

The same might be said of Taylor, 50, a model of inconspicuous consumption, with his crumpled khakis and open collars, cheap lunch haunts and aversion to executive power perks. He has no entourage, no office wall covered with celebrity photos (the closest he comes is a picket-line snapshot with Cesar E. Chavez), no reserved parking spot. "Listen," he says, "if you can't find a place like anyone else, something's wrong with you."

Democrats awarded the early presidential caucus to Nevada partly to give labor, a longtime ally, a bigger say in choosing its nominee. (Republicans, eyeing the action on the Democratic side, have set their vote for the same Jan. 19 date.) For Local 226, the biggest union and most powerful political organization in Nevada, the vote provides an opportunity to promote its agenda -- higher wages, pro-

labor job rules, a pathway to citizenship for immigrant workers -- well beyond Las Vegas.

"We want to talk about issues affecting our workers across the country," said Pilar Weiss, 31, the union's political director. "We want that language and those issues injected into the campaign all through the 2008 cycle."

Taylor is key to that effort, though he strongly denies it. The union prides itself on being a member-driven, bottom-up organization. (There are 500 people on its bargaining committees.) That approach saved the union by restoring morale after years of misrule and a crippling 1984 citywide strike.

But Taylor is no idle observer, as demonstrated by the way he cuts off speeches and gets sign production started at the headquarters rally. Venting is fine, but Taylor prefers action and, even more, results. "I like to find solutions," he says. "Statements and platitudes really don't mean much."

The bottom line is the bottom line. Consider: A union cook in Las Vegas makes $16.20 an hour, better than 60% above the national average; housekeepers earn $13.07 an hour, or 50% more.

"The union's delivered," said University of Nevada, Las Vegas, professor William N. Thompson, an expert on the gambling industry. And not just for its members. Businesses throughout the Las Vegas area pay more because "they know if they want to avoid turnover, they have to keep up" with wages in the big casinos, Thompson said.

The union won't be wasting its endorsement on symbolic gestures like the last time it backed a presidential candidate. In 1992, Jerry Brown got the nod over Bill Clinton simply for joining picketers outside the Frontier hotel-casino.

"In politics, there's a lesson I learned," Taylor says. "It's not like a horse race, where you can still make money on second and third place. In elections, you either win or lose."

D. Taylor once thought of being a spy.

Growing up, he loved the novels of John le Carre and Frederick Forsyth, and he thought it would be "very cool and intriguing" to work for the CIA.

The youngest of four children, Taylor was the only boy. He was named after his father, a lawyer and judge in Williamsburg, Va., but his mother said one Donald per household was plenty; thenceforth he was simply D. His parents divorced when he was 12. Taylor and the youngest of his sisters moved with their mom from the countryside to a two-bedroom apartment in town.

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